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3.3 What can genres do for you?

Think of it like this: each genre novel suggests certain characteristics, qualities and plot patterns that are particular to that genre. When you read a murder-mystery, you expect there at least to be a murder, or some kind of love interest in a romance. The reader has certain expectations. To fulfil them – the murder-mystery opening with a dead body; the romance delivering the passions of a hero and heroine – means that readers recognise the familiar elements and progressions of the story, their expectations are confirmed, and in the end they feel a satisfaction in proportion to the extent to which the writing has either gratified or disappointed their expectations.

The writer enters into a ‘contract’ with the reader, which says that the writer won’t mislead the reader unnecessarily, and that ultimately, the writer won’t betray the reader by breaking out of the boundaries of the genre that the fiction has encouraged the reader to expect.

Does this make for a good piece of fiction? That depends.

For example, the story’s progression might be too predictable. There might be an excess of ‘expectation, satisfied’, where the most obvious culprit committed the murder, just as you had known from the start. Or there were no tantalising ‘red herrings’ to lead you off the scent, no intriguing ‘twists’ in the plot to make the final outcome seem surprising, even though you had been encouraged to anticipate it.

Alternatively, the fiction might not be ‘predictable enough’: a great romance that fizzles out midway through the story, with the writer never again referring to that romance’s existence – this, after having raised the reader’s expectations about its importance within the piece of writing.

These are the pitfalls of not following the genre’s ‘rules’. They can also be turned to your advantage.

By diverging from your readers’ expectations – perhaps by employing aspects of different genres – they can feel surprised, intrigued and excited, rather than feeling let down.

Activity 20

Click below to listen to an audio file in which novelists talk about the pleasures of working within existing genres or of subverting them

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This illustrates several ways in which a knowledge of genres will prove useful to you in the course of your writing – as a fund of ideas, material and stylistic methods.